British–Latin American Relations

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British–Latin American Relations

Commercial interaction has been the mainspring of British-Latin American relations, with the English goal being commercial ascendancy and the means varying with historical circumstances. England began a continuous and expanding role in Latin America by challenging Spain's efforts to monopolize the wealth of the new lands discovered by Columbus. An assortment of corsairs based in the Old World, among them Francis Drake and John Hawkins, preyed on Spanish shipping and plundered the American coasts during the Elizabethan Age. In the seventeenth century, England established enclaves in several small islands in the Lesser Antilles, in neighboring Guiana, in the Bahamas and Bermuda, in what is now Belize and along the Mosquito Coast of Central America, and gained strategic advantage by seizing Jamaica in 1655. Privateering and piracy now blended with contraband trade, dyewood and mahogany lumbering, and colonizing ventures as the English expanded their efforts to breach the Spanish monopoly. An era of plunder left a trail of carnage and wreckage over a wide expanse of the Caribbean.

As Spanish power waned in the eighteenth century, England was able to wring commercial concessions from Spain in the Americas. By mid-century England had become the major market for the raw materials of Spanish America and the principal source for its manufactured goods, with Spanish merchants in Cádiz and Seville serving more as intermediaries in this trade. During the prolonged wars of the French Revolution, Spain's interaction with her colonies was often interrupted, enabling England to make further commercial inroads. The long Napoleonic struggle disrupted traditional trading patterns, and England compensated by expanding commercial ties with Spain's overseas colonies.

Spanish resistance to Napoleon's occupation of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 prompted Creole leaders overseas to vie with royal officials to resist French pretensions by governing in the name of the deposed Spanish king, Ferdinand VII. The ambiguous situation allowed England, now an ally of Spain, to further her commercial penetration of the Spanish Empire. The defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of Ferdinand VII were followed at first by a hesitant and later by a mushrooming independence movement in Spain's colonies. England was in a quandary. An independent Latin America would provide England with commercial access on an unprecedented scale, but as the ally of Spain, England could not officially support Spanish American independence. By insisting that the independence movement was a domestic uprising involving only Spain and her colonies, England dissuaded the other European monarchs from assisting Ferdinand VII.

The English correctly concluded that without outside assistance Ferdinand would be unable to recover his mainland colonies, and one by one, they won their independence. Brazilians were further indebted to the English for their evacuation of the Portuguese court to Rio de Janeiro to escape capture by Napoleon. Brazilian independence, being more a family matter, did not necessitate any juggling of British policy. The United States also supported Latin American independence and, well aware of England's position, used the Monroe Doctrine to warn the European powers not to interfere in New World affairs. The new Latin American nations viewed England not only as the major supporter of their independence but also as their principal partner for achieving anticipated prosperity.

In the post-Napoleonic world England emerged as the international hub of commerce. To expand global commerce England led the way in replacing the restrictive policies of mercantilism with freer trade, and preached the comparative advantage of international specialization. Competing for the lion's share of global trade became the focus of the British government during the relatively peaceful nineteenth century, and the tenets of economic liberalism provided the cutting edge. England was confident that in the long run she could not be overtaken by other nations because of the natural advantages she derived from an unrivaled superiority in industry, commerce, and finance. Latin America was a prime target for British commercial expansion, and for the next century England enjoyed an overwhelming preeminence in Latin America that was not seriously challenged until the twentieth century.

Initially, opportunities in independent Latin America were greeted enthusiastically in England, but after the speculative investment bubble of 1824–1826 burst, investors became more wary. Political instability and internecine wars in Latin America during the age of the caudillos (1825–1870) had a sobering effect and dimmed the vision of Latin America as a new El Dorado for quick wealth. Absorbing whatever trade existed, the British were unwilling to incur risks by trying to expand it, given the political climate.

As political order and stability were imposed by a new generation of authoritarian leaders after 1870, prospects for commercial expansion in Latin America brightened. The British responded with mounting investment to develop the export sectors of the more promising countries, especially in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Brazil was an early target because the constitutional monarchy was seen as providing a continuity and stability lacking in Spanish America. Later, British commercial interests revolutionized the meat industry in Argentina, developed the mining economies in Chile and Mexico, expanded the petroleum industry in Venezuela and Mexico, and made similar incursions into most other Latin American countries. Railroad construction was launched on a major scale, with the heaviest British commitment in Argentina. Enjoying a dramatic advantage in capital and credit, the British established commanding control in railroads, communications, utilities, port installations, banking, technology, shipping, insurance, government bonds, and trade.

Latin America experienced a degree of prosperity and growth, but its economy tended to become an appendage to that of Great Britain; any benefits that accrued to Latin America were the by-product of prosperity overseas. Latin America emerged as part of the peripheral world serving the major industrial powers, principally England. The heavy British imprint in Latin America eventually generated a reaction against what was perceived as economic imperialism in the twentieth century, especially in Argentina, which was viewed as almost a British dominion. The first major challenge to British preeminence appeared in the Caribbean with the sudden emergence of the United States as a global industrial power after 1900. New interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine encouraged U.S. business and banking interests to supersede their British counterparts in areas essential to U.S. security.

British ascendancy continued unabated up to World War I and carried into the 1920s, but it encountered more competition from the United States and more resistance within various Latin American nations, a trend that became more apparent between the wars. The Great Depression undercut British-Latin U.S. economic ties. Relations were further strained by anti-imperialist nationalism demanding more autonomy, a trend most evident with Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Lázaro, Cardenas in Mexico, and later Juan Perón in Argentina.

World War II marked the end of an era in British-Latin American relations. The postwar realignment witnessed a serious eclipse of British influence both in the world in general and in Latin America in particular. Faced with diminishing assets, Great Britain had to rearrange priorities in an increasingly polarized world. Independence was granted to her tiny Caribbean colonies as the empire was dismantled. Investment and trade with Latin America slowly eroded and passed overwhelmingly to the United States. Military collaboration and economic aid underwrote the new U.S. preeminence. The United States rapidly displaced Great Britain in Latin America as Britain had once displaced Spain.

In 1982 Argentina's military government invaded the British-controlled Falkland Islands (in Argentina known as the Islas Malvinas) off the coast of Argentina, provoking war with the United Kingdom. Argentina lost, and the British reestablished sovereignty, with diplomatic relations between the countries restored in 1990. A permanent agreement still has not been reached on the status of the islands.

See alsoBuccaneers and Privateers; Falklands/Malvinas War.


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J. Fred Rippy, British Investments in Latin America, 1822–1949 (1959).

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Additional Bibliography

Jayne, Catherine E. Oil, War, and Anglo-American Relations: American and British Reactions to Mexico's Expropriation of Foreign Oil Properties, 1937–1941. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Marshall, Oliver, ed. English-Speaking Communities in Latin America. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.

Mayo, John K. "The Development of British Interests in Chile's Norte Chico in the Early Nineteenth Century." The Americas 57, no. 3 (2001): 363-394.

Miller, Rory. Britain and Latin America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London and New York: Longman, 1993.

Villegas Revueltas, Silvestre. Deuda y diplomacia: La relación México-Gran Bretaña, 1824–1884. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2005.

                                           Robert A. Naylor

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